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The Near Future of Digital Cameras, Part 1

How Things Stand Right Now · Posted on 04-03-2012 in Photographic Articles

The Near Future of Digital Cameras, Part 1

The first affordable DSLR camera, intended for the masses of amateurs who wanted to move away from film into this new-fangled technology, was released in 2003. Canon priced its 6MP EOS 300D (called Digital Rebel in the US and Kiss Digital in Japan) at $999, thus breaking the psychological $1k barrier for the first time. Once the floodgates were opened every camera maker followed suit and soon the under-1,000 was the biggest DSLR market. Business boomed, especially for Canon and Nikon, though Pentax, Olympus and Sony (ex Minolta) carved out their niches and thrived in their own ways; even Leica found new wind in the digital world by producing the foremost digital rangefinder. Soon DSLRs became a common feature around the necks of tourists and locals strolling around major cities everywhere in the World.

The financial storm hits

Then came 2008. The World’s economy hit a wall, and so began a huge recession that we’re still climbing out of today, the Yen rose steadily against foreign currencies making Japanese cameras more expensive to import. Sales fell for everyone. And yet R&D didn’t stop. There were still dozens of P&S cameras released each year, and new DSLRs arrived every 3 months or so. We even saw the appearance of a new segment of large sensor cameras called “mirrorless”, though these were little more than shrunk down entry-level DSLRs stripped of their mirrors and pentaprisms, intended to entice P&S users who wanted the IQ of a DSLR without its bulk, weight or complexity.

Mirrorless arrives

2011 was a year of realisation for me. I looked at the camera market and saw it full of mature products. Sony’s 16MP CMOS sensor was featured in at least 4 cameras (from Sony, Pentax and Nikon) and received rave reviews by anyone using it in terms of IQ at both low and high ISO, with almost noiseless shadows throughout. Micro 4/3 users loved the multi-aspect 16MP sensor from Panasonic and the video capabilities of the GH series cameras, while Olympus shooters were mostly happy with their 12MP sensors and the Digital PENs were popular amongst beginning and advanced shooters alike; so much so that 4/3 cameras have been all but abandoned. Sony found its calling in the mirrorless market too, both with the tiny NEX series as with the new SLT cameras derived from standard DSLRs. This popularity is what probably gave Fuji the courage to release their own mirrorless with a fixed lens: The X100. This wasn’t a camera for P&S users to move up to, it was meant for serious photographers who wanted more manual control of their camera, and despite the X100’s quirks, it’s been a big success in both terms of sales and brand exposure for Fuji. So much so that a few weeks ago they released the X-Pro 1, the X100’s big brother with interchangeable lenses and new sensor without a Bayer array or AA (Anti Aliasing) filter.

This isn’t to say DSLRs are dead; the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000, both using the aforementioned 16MP Sony sensor, were big sellers for their companies (and still are). Canon’s Digital Rebel entry-level DSLRs are still the most sold while their 5D line is a staple with wedding photographers and portrait shooters. Nikon full-frame is big with sports shooters and photojournalists and their old (in digital terms) D700 is still a standard for high-quality, great low-light performance, affordable cameras. Even Sigma still manufactures their own brand of DSLR with their Foveon sensor, which finally reached a real 15MP count and full APS-C size.

But what are the people saying?

What (I think) the masses want

I can’t talk to everyone who does photography, or even talk for them, but I can tell you the vibe I get from forums and the photographers I do chat with; these are the 3 main points, in no particular order:

  • We have enough megapixels
    There are always those who want more, more, more for whatever reasons, but the majority of shooters are not clamouring for 36MP cameras. In a recent poll of Nikon users a full 59% of them said they wished the new D800 had 16MP instead of 36MP, and that’s a $3,000 camera we’re talking about. In a similar vein, when Sony introduced the NEX-7 with a 24MP sensor, many complained that they hadn’t stuck with the 16MP sensor from the NEX-5n. A few years ago nobody complained when cameras went up from 8 to 10MP, then up to 12, 14, 16...though the Canon 7D, with its 18MP APS-C sensor, did have many throwing their hands up in the air. Is 16 the number of megapixels most photographers prefer? It feels like it.
  • Big, heavy cameras and lenses are not necessary for high IQ
    Japan has always been fascinated with small electronic items so it was natural for mirrorless cameras to become popular there, where they seem poised to overtake DSLRs in sales in 2012. Already in 2011, 42% of interchangeable lens cameras sold in Japan were mirrorless. The rest of Asia follows with 22% and Europe is a bit behind with mirrorless claiming 17% of the interchangeable lens camera market. The US still greatly favours DSLRs, not unsurprisingly in the land that loves BIG; 13% of interchangeable lens camera sales in the American continent went to mirrorless. No matter your personal preference, mirrorless are growing in market share and when consumers take them seriously, so do camera makers. For full numbers, see the CIPA figures for 2011.
  • APS-C and 4/3 sensors are good enough
    Sony has a lot to do with APS-C being seen by many as a sensor size to embrace rather than put up with thanks to the impressive IQ delivered by its CMOS sensors from the last 2 years; this has forced Canon to keep up, and even Samsung has, after struggling for years, managed to finally produce a sensor with good IQ at high ISO. And so we find ourselves with APS-C cameras from all manufacturers offering great IQ up to ISO 800 and varying levels of “very good” IQ above that. For $700 you can purchase a camera with better high ISO performance than a $5,000 camera not 5 years ago. Even 4/3 sensors are coming of age with the latest cameras from Olympus and Panasonic showing impressive high ISO capabilities. Do we want more? Of course we do—we’re humans! The difference now is that we don’t need it and it’s becoming harder with each iteration of sensor to justify FF cameras on the basis of low-light performance alone.

Before you start flaming me, bear in mind that I am talking about a majority of photographers. Professional photographers have different needs and represent a minuscule minority of the whole user base. If your main subject is the nocturnal coalmine mole, you are an even smaller minority; please realise that before you comment telling me I’m wrong.

In part 2 of this series I will tell you where I think the $500-2,000 camera industry is heading.

    —Miserere

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